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When you stare into the void, the void stares back.

Mistakes – we all make them! If you’re just starting out in amateur astronomy, congrats. There are, however, habitual mistakes made by beginners. Check out the list below, and hopefully this article will help you avoid common pitfalls.

Number 7: Buying a telescope at a department store

As a rule, avoid any telescope sold in a department store. Every year, especially around the holidays, I get countless sad emails from people who got one as a gift, and the comment is always the same – it doesn’t seem to work. It may not be you! Almost all telescopes under about $150 USD fall under this category. With the decline of physical department stores though, these are getting hard to weed out. If you are on a strict budget, consider getting a pair of 7×35 or 7×50 binoculars and a few good books or star charts. You’ll spend less, and get more.

Number 6: Buying too much stuff

This might be considered the opposite of No. 7, above. Over enthusiastic beginners sometimes go overboard, buying so much equipment they get overwhelmed. You do not need anything more than a telescope, a mount – if it wasn’t included with the telescope – one or two eyepieces, and some star charts. Exercise patience. There’s always time to get more stuff later.

Number 5: Astrophotography

I get it – the urge to capture what you see through the eyepiece can be irresistible! However, once you get beyond simple snaps with your smartphone, astrophotography balloons into a massive time and money sink. I usually advise people to wait at least a year before attempting serious astrophotography. If the urge cannot wait, by all means partake, but if you find yourself getting overwhelmed, consider backing off for a while. As with buying too much stuff (above) there is plenty of time to indulge later.

Number 4: Excessive use of the barlow (and high magnification in general)

A Barlow lens is a simple lens in a tube that doubles the magnification of any eyepiece. While they have their uses, experience shows that many – if not most – beginners abuse this device. Excessive high power often distorts the image to the point where you cannot see anything. You do not need excessively high power on most objects, and on large targets like the Pleiades (M45) or the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), you almost cannot get the power low enough. I often have to repeat to beginners – low power is your friend; embrace it!

Jupiter seen with reasonable magnification (left) and excessive magnification (right). Credit: Ed Ting

Number 3: Improper use of the equatorial mount

An equatorial mount tracks the motion of the sky by itself and can be a big time saver. However, some effort is required on your part to make it work. The polar axis needs to be pointed at the north (or south) pole. In the northern hemisphere, there is a star (Polaris, the North Star) that is conveniently situated only half a degree from true north. If you place your equatorial mount in a random direction, it will actually work against you.

A properly aligned equatorial mount with the polar axis pointing to the North Star. Credit: Ed Ting

Number 2: Too little attention paid to observing conditions

Many beginners spend endless hours agonizing over which telescope to buy, but pay too little attention to the conditions under which they will be used. Get out to dark skies, away from buildings and streetlights. Allow your eyes 15-20 minutes to acclimate to the dark. Carry a red flashlight to preserve your night vision. Get (or make) a simple dew shield to keep your optics from dewing over. To check conditions, consult either the Clear Sky Chart or Astrospheric, two astronomy-specific forecasts, before heading out.

Number 1: Not joining an astronomy club

Astronomy clubs are endless resources of knowledge and experience. Take advantage of them! Many astronomy clubs also have equipment to loan, so you can try stuff out before buying.

There you have it – a list of common mistakes and how to avoid them. Good luck on your journey, and clear skies to you all!

For a more in-depth look at common beginner’s mistakes, see Ed Ting’s YouTube video:

 

About Ed Ting

Ed Ting is a well-known amateur astronomer. His work has appeared in Sky & Telescope, Night Sky, Skywatch, Amateur Astronomy, Discover, and Popular Mechanics magazines. His web site, www.scopereviews.com, is a widely-read telescope review web site. He is a National Science Foundation Ambassador to Chile and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

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